Old City Hall
Author: Robert Rotenberg
Price: Hardcover, $29.99
The first novel by lawyer-turned-author Robert Rotenberg is a crime thriller with its wingtips planted firmly on Toronto’s meanish streets. For many readers, of the local variety especially, this will be the most pleasing aspect of Old City Hall.
As police, reporters and various representatives of the local legal community scramble around the periphery of the murder of a popular radio host’s young wife, Toronto flashes by with captivating vividness: Streetcars rumble along College St., traffic chokes the terminally congested DVP, sinister confabs unfold at the Vespa Lunch and late-night hockey games crack and slap in the chilly air at Nathan Phillips Square.
Rotenberg, a former magazine editor who opened his own criminal law practice 18 years ago, obviously knows and respects the city enough to cast it as a primary character in Old City Hall. He demonstrates the ambivalence that seems to come so naturally to people who love Toronto enough to be irritated by it.
It’s a waterfront city that seems bafflingly embarrassed by the fact, a “multicultural” entity still largely run by powerful white guys and, particularly in places where condos rise supreme, a veritable vomitorium of architectural whimsy.
It’s also changing, constantly. Toronto is one of the most mutable urban centres in North America, capable of assuming more identities than a fugitive felon.
Twenty-first century Toronto is a complicated place, rife with the kind of paradox and contradiction that lends a city depth and complexity.
Old City Hall is all the more frustrating, then, because Rotenberg’s city has so much more of that quality than the characters he has created to inhabit it. There are determined, just-the-facts-ma’am cops, driven lawyers, likeably comic ethnic standbys and fearsomely by-the-book judges. It’s a cast one might find in any pedestrian legal thriller, local specifics notwithstanding.
Then there’s the plot those characters inhabit. Even the apparent murder around which the proceedings churn seems oddly inconsequential and quaint, a weirdly nostalgic incident designed to rattle the smug stability of the good city this once was.